“Well, don’t you look rough,” Dale grumbled to himself as he ran his left hand along his jawline. His tanned reflection smiled back at him in the sun visor mirror.
He slid his peacoat off his shoulders and unbuttoned his collar.
“Shit,” he muttered. The last thing he wanted was yellow pit stains on his best polo. That I just left the gym excuse wouldn’t hold up. He’d given up on that years ago when he realized he couldn’t hold muscle for shit. He’d spend hours lifting weights, galloping on the treadmill and eating nothing but red meat, milk and eggs only for his body to rip the protein to bits, leaving him slender. Dale rolled the window down and grimaced as the evening’s frosty gusts brushed against his face.
A cold sweat broke out across his forehead. Dale ran the back of his hand over it, then huffed. As if this fleshy pink slash over my right eye helps, he thought. He didn’t expect it would disappear with the stitches just being removed a couple days ago. He remembered vividly how Dr. Martinez glared accusingly at him, his head tilted, eyes peering at him over purple frames.
“Still a little too short to be playing hockey, don’t you think?” Dr. Martinez asked.
Dale had snickered then, and told the doctor that he would wait for the bill in the mail. Hospital bills were like any other bill: expected and unavoidable. But that was the cost of playing physical sports every season.
Dale bound his fingers and flicked at his hair, raking it over the laceration above his brow. He scoffed. One minute, blades sliced up the ice as everyone raced over to Dale. The match had been neck-and-neck with the Big Rapids Badgers. Had Dale missed the puck, the Badgers would’ve tied. But he didn’t and his team, the Grand Rapids Grenades, had taken the victory by one. The team leaped and shouted as they raised him up high. He punched the air, rooted, and laughed. The dome boomed, full of their excited voices. Then, in the midst of all the celebrating, Jerry hurled his ice skate over the huddle, and it landed blade first into Dale’s face. He relived the aftermath whenever he laid down for the night; a dull flash right before a numbing darkness eased him into a deep sleep.
Some guys just don’t know how to lose with dignity, Dale thought.
He flipped the visor into the ceiling, then glared up the block. The street could’ve been hosting a tacky light show with all the bling and glitz from the Christmas lights and décor that hung from most roof trims and awnings. For the most part, the houses appeared nearly identical under the street lights: all brick and varying shades of brown, single floored, with cars and SUVs sitting in most driveways. Iced over yards gleamed as much as the roads; the same roads Dale’s tires grumbled and slid across the entire ride in. Lake-effect ruled the weather in Western Michigan. Blizzards, high winds, and sometimes ice storms were normal for early December. It was a way of life here: a promise kept by nature every November through April. Ask anyone out on the lakefront and they’d confirm that frozen cheeks and numb fingertips were more welcome than a dog-swooping hurricane or a house fileting wildfire any day.
He rested his eyes on the residence opposite the curb. The empty driveway led up to a dark house. A thick shadow hung over, protecting it from the holiday cheer that consumed most of its neighbors.
His heartbeat quickened. What if she forgot? What if she’s not there? What if she’s… ugly?
Marla was in there. He was certain she was. Maybe she was lying down. Naked. It’d be a replica of the pictures in his phone’s photo gallery: her lavender eyes low while she rubbed herself.
Dale’s palms went clammy. Meeting a girl this way wasn’t unheard of. Going Out. An app that got people laid. It was as grotesque as getting a prostitute. The only difference was that this way was free.
But who picks up girls at bars anymore?
“Your Big Thirty will be so much fun,” Diane said over Monday coffee at Jinx’s Café. “Five more months and we’re in Vegas.”
Dale twirled his spoon, sprinkling the tabletop with remnants of cocoa. Diane snatched napkins from the dispenser and wiped up the spill.
“Aren’t you excited?” she asked with a wide smile.
He half grinned and nodded, then winced. The pale sun burst through every bay window, painting the diner yellow.
“Good!” she said. “You’re still bringing a date, right?”
“A date?” he asked, perplexed.
“Yeah. I got me one.” She rocked her hips side-to-side in the booth across from him.
“Who? Your husband you want to divorce?” Dale asked.
“Oh, shut up. Me and Lance are doing good.” Diane stopped dancing.
“Does he know that?”
“Does he know what?”
“Anything? Does he know anything?”
Amusement crossed her face. She buried her smile in her pale cashmere sleeve. Her burst of laughter sounded like a smoker holding back a cough.
“Come on, Brother. I’m serious,” she said, climbing down from her high.
“No. No date.”
“Why not?” Diane’s almond eyes frowned.
Dale scrunched his face. “They couldn’t get us a table with blinds?”
“Don’t change the subject,” Diane said, fussing with her silver bangles. “You need to move on.”
“I’m fine, Sis,” he said smoothly.
“No, you’re not,” Diane mimicked.
“Because all you talk about is Sasha. It’s like you have no interest in the world around you. Your face is always in your phone.” She cupped her mug with both hands and brought it to her lips. Then, with discerning eyes, said, “She’s not coming back, ya know.”
His stomach turned.
Sasha. Damn Facebook had a way of putting her at the top of his feed. Her plump lips or thin arms all over some pale asshole.
A lucky asshole.
“It’s been six months,” Diane pointed out. “Get a new girl.”
“And why does it bother you that I’m not ready?”
“Because you’re not waiting on someone else to come along. You’re waiting on something old to come back. It’s not happening. Move on. Now I’ve been patient… but this has to stop.”
Dale cringed. He never had to say a word around Diane. She always knew. Some of Sasha’s amateur paintings still hung on his bedroom wall. Her toothbrush sat in the Superman mug by the bathroom sink. Her number was still saved under ‘babe’. Whenever the thing sounded, he’d look with eager eyes. One day, it’d be her calling.
Tough titty, he thought as he pushed his full mug against the glass salt and pepper shakers in the middle of the table. The smell of chocolate steam had become unbearable.
Diane sighed and combed her crinkled dark hair with clutched fingers. “I mean, look at you, Dale. For starters, Calvin’s back.”
Dale stroked his hairy chin. Calvin’s tail had reached his chest. “Oh, you don’t like Calvin anymore?” He grinned.
“You look like a modish hippie.”
Dale wiped the back of a hand across his dampening forehead. Then, he tugged at his leather cuffs, freeing his arms. “Calvin’s done nothing to deserve such an unwelcome attitude.”
“Don’t bullshit me. The last time Calvin visited was two years ago and then eight years before that.” She dropped her glare to her coffee. “When Mom and Dad died.”
“Nobody died if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said.
“I know.” She looked at him pleadingly. “That’s the problem. I think this break up is killing you.”
“Diane, I’m fine.”
“How come?” he said. Why can’t she let this go?
“Because you’re only fine when people die.”
He cocked his head. “No, I’m not,” he argued.
Diane rolled her eyes. “There was that night the cops showed up to the house. Remember? We were fighting over the PlayStation controller while we waited for that slow ass pizza guy. Anyway, when they broke the news, I crumbled to my knees and you stood there, wordless. You just stared. When you spoke a couple days later, it was only to console me. I’d always ask if you’re okay and you’d say, ‘I’m fine’. You did the same thing when Nana stopped breathing after the heart transplant not even a couple of years ago.” She twisted her wedding ring. “You’re not fine when you say you’re fine.” Dale snickered and pulled his coat over his shoulders. An older couple shuffled through the door, letting in a crisp wind. The man wrapped his arm around the woman’s waist as they used his copper cane to balance their steps. Dale wondered if that’d be him with the next love of his life one day. Or would he die alone?
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